Quebec Auditor General report questions usage of courthouses

More than a year after the Quebec auditor general revealed that courthouses in the province are underused and that the provincial ministry of justice fails to analyze readily available administrative and financial data that would help it become more efficient and cost-effective, the justice department is tightlipped over what, if any, progress it has made to remedy the situation.

Already under fire for its handling of the labour conflict with its Crown prosecutors and government lawyers and castigated by the Quebec law society for failing to provide sufficient judicial resources, legal observers are urging the Quebec government to address the findings made by the auditor general.

“The Ministry of Justice has not adopted a set of indicators that would help it evaluate the performance of the system as is the case elsewhere in Canada,” observed Gilles Ouimet, the head of the Barreau du Quebec. “It would be beneficial to heed the auditor general’s recommendations.”

Renaud Lachance, the auditor-general, came up with some startling findings after conducting an audit during a nine-month stretch in 2009. Quebec has a network of 58 courthouses and 42 mobile service points but the rate of courtroom usage varied enormously, from one per cent to 63 per cent, with the exception of a courthouse in Val-d’Or in Western Quebec that had a usage rate of 85 per cent. Surprisingly the Montreal courthouse, the biggest in the province with 88 courtrooms, had a usage rate of only 59 per cent while Quebec City, the second biggest with 36 courtrooms, stood at 56 per cent.

Lachance also points out that in 2007-2008, 58 per cent of cases that were opened were processed in seven courthouses, and one per cent of cases in 11 courthouses. The small volume of activity bears a price. For three courthouses, the average cost per case listed on the trial docket and having been heard ranged between $1,600 and $5,200 while the average cost for the other courthouses hovered between $58 and $549, for an average of $154. Such findings prompted Lachance to assert that maintaining courthouses with little activity engenders inefficiencies, and recommends that the Quebec ministry of justice periodically review the volume of activity, costs and efficiency of comparable courthouses. He also recommends that the justice department consider dispatching cases to courthouses that have the capacity to handle cases from low-volume courthouses, all the while respecting the critical courtroom use threshold set by the ministry of justice.

But that would be going too far, says Pierre Noreau, one of a handful of Quebec law professors who researches issues revolving around the administration of justice in the province. “The figures speak volumes but just because they do does not mean that their interpretation is easy — and the solutions are not to be found in the figures,” said Noreau. “The auditor general report provides an accounting picture, focusing on costs, but it must be recognized that it does highlight problems. Unlike the education or health system, which are continuously being evaluated qualitatively, the justice system does not sufficiently use such measures.”

Indeed, according to Lachance, one of the problems plaguing the justice department is that it “does not perform any analysis” of financial and administrative data regarding judicial activities and does not conduct a “regular and documented follow-up” on hearing or case settlement times. “Nor did the Ministry of Justice establish, in conjunction with judicial authorities, the objectives and targets to be achieved in this respect,” noted the auditor general.

Statistics and research, notes law professor Catherine Piché, help to identify issues and can help to find ways to improve the justice system. Without statistics, it’s all but impossible to “actually know what’s going on,” and identify the “weak links” in the system. A case in point is the issue of settlements. The Quebec Ministry of Justice does not have figures on how many cases are settled in the province, does not know when they occur during the process, and does not know how they settled, adds Piché, who recently completed a doctoral thesis on settlements.

“Linked to this lack of statistics and research and information about the weaker links is that you actually have problems with court administration and court management,” said Piché. “You see in this report that there are very few tools that are given to judges and court administrators to conduct court management, and this is a really major problem that is related to technology that is still absent in the courts. We’re at the stage where we have to let technology come into the process, and it would bring much better court management, more efficiency in the process, more structure in the process and more access to justice.”

An integrated justice information system, otherwise known by its acronym SIIJ, has been in the works since 1999 – and it’s been a disaster or as Lachance puts it in his report the “project has not been managed with a concern for economy and efficiency.” Intended to modernize the administration of justice, the partnership between the departments of justice and public security along with the Office of criminal and penal prosecutions have failed to keep close tabs on costs and did not put in place appropriate risk management. Since 1999, nearly $30 million has been spent on the project out of a budget of more than $80 million, and it is nowhere near close to completion. The auditor general considers there are “still major risks that the budget, content and timetables will not be respected.”

“Aye Aye Aye,” said Ouimet, who participated in the discussions early on over the development of the project. “At the time I said that the system would never see the day, not because we don’t need it. It would be a formidable tool, would respond to the concerns raised by the auditor general, and improve communication between the different partners of the justice system. More than ten years later, it doesn’t look good.”

Ouimet is not the only one concerned. So too is the National Assembly’s Committee on Public Administration, which aside from examining all financial commitments equal to or exceeding $ 25,000 authorized by the government also hears deputy ministers and chief executive officers of public bodies discuss their administrative management. The Committee also hears the Auditor General with respect to his annual management report.

The justice department, to the “surprise” of Committee members, terminated a contract with DMR, a business and information technology integration consulting firm, that was leading the SIIJ effort on March 2009, without informing SIIJ partners, let alone the public. “According to the members of the Committee, the facts demonstrate that there is a lack of transparency in this dossier, and that improvements must be made on information about the SIIJ to the public,” said the report published on December 2010, which noted that the Treasury Board provided an additional $24.1 million in financing to the SIIJ project

The Committee also “expects” that the Ministry of Justice “justify” the maintenance of each courthouse based on “appropriate” criteria, such as volume of activity, cost and efficiency. A report was submitted in late January to the Committee, but the Ministry of Justice has refused to make it public.

The Committee also recommended that the justice department submit a report by January 2011 over progress on the SIIJ project. No word on whether this has been done.

The justice department turned down requests for interviews, and the chair of the 12-person Committee, Parti Québécois member of the national assembly Sylvain Simard, did not return calls.

Originally published in The Lawyers Weekly.

About Luis Millán 346 Articles
I am a law and business journalist. I write for Canadian Lawyer, the National, a magazine published by the Canadian Bar Association, and The Lawyers Weekly, an independent legal Canadian publication. This blog is in no way affiliated with any of these publications.

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